War Is Hell: A World War II Tank Operator Remembers His Fight Against Germany

May 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IITanksM4ShermanHitlerNazisMilitaryTechnology

War Is Hell: A World War II Tank Operator Remembers His Fight Against Germany

Not a happy story.

Soon after, the tanks rolled and Bromberg saw the effects of the bombing. “I saw dead Americans lying all over,” he said. They broke into open country, leaving the maze of hedgerows behind. Progress that had been measured in yards was now measured in miles. German resistance melted away, but the enemy made last stands in towns or at roadblocks.

To defeat the Germans in towns, tankers took to blasting church steeples, which usually housed enemy artillery spotters.  “The first thing I shot at was the church steeple,” said Bromberg. It became a common practice in Europe. “You never saw a church steeple with a top on it.”

The Americans also used a new technique against the Germans. Starting in August, American fighter pilots rode in frontline tanks and radioed their fellow pilots overhead, directing them to the targets. When Bromberg’s tank clashed with a German antitank gun, a tank-bound pilot radioed a flight of P-38 Lightning fighter bombers to knock it out.

“He talked to them and they dive-bombed the antitank gun,” he said. “We’d just go on.” While the fighter planes helped, they sometimes fired short, making friendly fire incidents common. One day while Fox Company bivouacked behind the line, a British fighter plane roared in, machine guns firing. The pilot, however, failed to pull out of his dive and crashed. “He must have seen us,” said Bromberg.

On August 6, Bromberg lost another leader. Lieutenant Schwartz dismounted their tank under heavy fire when he saw a soldier go down in front of them. As he made his way to the wounded man, enemy machine gun fire struck him down.

Undeterred, Schwartz continued on until he was hit again and killed. “I became the [turret] gunner,” said Bromberg, “and the gunner became the commander.” He spent the rest of the day in the turret, aiming and firing a few shots.

For the rest of the month, the tanks of the 2nd Armored Division raced across France. They did not stop until they reached the Seine River north of Paris. Infantry often rode on Bromberg’s tank. In fact, Bromberg preferred infantry support to armor. “I felt better with infantry around me than another tank,” he said. “They carried bazookas, they could see things, and they didn’t draw fire like a tank did. The infantry was glad to see us, and we were glad to see them.”

Along the way Bromberg noticed an odd feature about each battlefield. “You’d see dead Germans but almost no dead Americans.” The Americans had been removed so follow-up troops and replacements would not see them as they moved forward. “It was bad for morale.” Bromberg also saw numerous dead cows and horses. “It was a common thing  You’d see them lying on their backs with their legs up the air.”

During one break from combat, Bromberg and his crew stopped in a French house to eat. Inside, a bunch of women entered the room then burst into tears and left. Bromberg found out that the SS had shot their husbands that morning, just before the Americans had arrived.

Bromberg had a habit of volunteering for missions. When an officer named Michaels at battalion headquarters asked for volunteers to go into Vire and get prisoners, Bromberg said, “Put my name down, I’ll go.” Word spread around the company about Bromberg’s mission, and one of the tankers joked, “Bromberg, you’re not coming back. Can I have your watch?”

This scared him, but his name never came up for the mission. Months later Bromberg bumped into Michaels and asked him what happened. “I liked you a lot,” said Michaels, “so I tore your name up; I never turned it in.” That cheered Bromberg.

The running fight through France took a toll on Bromberg. One day while giving the driver a break, he drove with his head out of the hatch. His eyes started to burn, and he thought the Germans had put chemicals on the road. He visited the medics, but they said he was fine. “I don’t get no satisfaction,” said Bromberg about the incident.

On another occasion he fell asleep in the tank, but his dreams turned into a nightmare. He awoke, bolted out of the tank, and ran toward the enemy line. Tech. Sgt. George J. Delegan, the driver, also jumped out, grabbed Bromberg, and brought him back, saving his life. Bromberg also grew tired of Army rations, often throwing them away. “I was sick of it,” he said.

The division entered Belgium and Holland in September, but a lack of fuel and stiff German resistance nearly brought the drive to a halt. Near the German border at the end of the day, Bromberg stood in the turret, urinating over the side and talking with Staff Sergeant Aaron C. Evans when he saw a half-track returning from the front. All the men in the half-track wore German helmets.

Thinking they were prisoners, Bromberg pointed them out to Evans. As it drove past them, Bromberg realized they were Germans soldiers in a German half-track. “Evans, did you see what I saw?” he asked. Evans responded by dropping down into the turret, spinning it around, and firing a 75mm round into the back of the half-track. The shell tore into it and exploded, killing all the Germans.

The next morning Bromberg ventured out to the destroyed half-track to inspect the damage. Dead and broken Germans lay everywhere. Wallets and other personal items littered the ground. He inspected their belongings and realized something that had never occurred to him: they were just men, much like himself. “I never thought of those guys being human beings,” said Bromberg. “I looked at dead Germans all day long, but if I saw one [dead] American it bothered me.”

The Siegfried Line was a series of tank traps, obstacles, bunkers, and pillboxes defending the German border. “It was as bad as the hedgerows,” recalled Bromberg. To break through, engineers blew up obstacles with dynamite while 155mm artillery fired point-blank at the pillboxes.

Once through, everything changed. Men who had kept their heads out of the hatches throughout France and the Low Countries now buttoned up. “We’re back doing two miles an hour from 30 miles an hour.”

Bromberg had his most hair-raising scare at the Siegfried Line. A German dive bomber, possibly a Junkers Ju-87 Stuka, screamed down on his position one night and dropped a bomb. The plane had a siren, and the bomb fell with a whistle. Although it missed, the noise terrified Bromberg. “Between the siren and bomb I was a nervous wreck.” There was no defense against such attacks. “We were helpless,” said Bromberg. “You just had to sweat it out.”

As Bromberg and the 2nd Armored Division fought to encircle the ancient city of Aachen, the first German city to be captured by the Americans, he noticed a change in the landscape. White sheets covered most houses, while some hung swastikas.

“I used to hold my fire sometimes to save civilians,” said Bromberg, “but in Germany anything you see you shoot. Everybody you saw was your enemy.” He made one exception to the rule. One day he saw some old people crossing a field. Even though he had orders to shoot, he held his fire.

In another instance, Bromberg’s crew spotted a German tank some distance away and fired, but the shell ricocheted off its hull. As the German tank slowly turned its turret toward their tank, the Americans, as Bromberg remembered it, “got the hell out of there.” They pulled back to an area filled with tank destroyers and told their crews about the enemy tank up ahead. The tank destroyer men agreed to engage the German tank, telling Bromberg, “Come on out and show us where it is.” His response was curt: “I said, ‘No way.’”

In November 1944, the 2nd Armored was pulled off the line for a rest. Maj. Gen. Harmon, the division commander, sent the entire division to a coal mine that had showers. When it was his turn, Bromberg stripped down to take his first shower in four months. What he saw shocked him. “I couldn’t believe my body,” he said. “I was nothing but skin and bones.”

When the Germans smashed through the American lines on December 16, 1944—the Battle of the Bulge—the 2nd Armored was too far north to play an initial role in the campaign. Assigned to Lt. Gen. William Simpson’s Ninth Army, it was transferred south on December 22 to Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ First Army to help close the bulge.

“They brought us in as a flank,” recalled Bromberg, “but my battalion was not involved.” Instead, he spent the winter months just trying to stay warm, standing behind the tank’s exhaust or sitting close to the transmission between the driver and the bow gunner.

The Americans sealed off the bulge in late January 1945, but there was more fighting ahead. As the 2nd Armored renewed its drive into Germany, Bromberg began to withdraw from his fellow tankers.  “I made it my business not to get close to anybody,” he said. He especially avoided replacement soldiers, who tended to get killed quickly. There were times Bromberg did not know the driver next to him. One replacement did impress him, though, a man named Shaffer. “He was calm,” said Bromberg. If the tank took a hit, “he’d climb out and light a cigarette. He really had nerves of iron.”